Born as the daughter of a sawmill worker and a midwife, she studied at the Oak Park High School at Laurel an Negro Central State College at Wilberforce (Ohio). In 1949, she was offered a scholarship offered by the Juilliard School where Page Kimball was her teacher until 1952.
She debuted in V. Thomson's "Four Saints in Three Acts" in 1952 on Broadway and at the International Arts Festival at Paris. Later, she took the role of Bess in Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", touring Vienna, Berlin and Paris. In 1953, she created the Barber's cycle "Hermit Songs". In 1954, she gave her debut recitals at New York, Boston and Phildelphia. A great international carreer followed: she was invited to sing at San Francisco (1957), Vienna (1958), ROH Covent Garden (1958), Verona (1958), Salzburg Festival (1960), Chicago, Milan (1960), Berlin Festival (1960), NBC TV broadcasts etc. Her Metropolitan Opera debut took place in 1961 in Verdi's "Il Trovatore". In 1966, she created the role of Cleopatra in Barber's "Anthony and Cleopatra" at the opening of the new Met. She retired from the stage in 1985 with "Aida" at the Met. From 1952 to 1974 she has been married with William Warfield, a famous baritone. In 1965, she was honored with the USA Medal of Freedom. "Her singing," President Johnson said, "has brought light to her land."
Bess (Gershwin: Porgy and Bess)
Donna Anna (Mozart: Don Giovanni)
Pamina (Mozart: Die Zauberflöte)
Madame Lidoine (Poulenc: Les dialogues des Carmélites)